Seattle Tough child support laws may dissuade men from becoming unwed fathers, as states with the most stringent laws and strict enforcement have up to 20 percent fewer out-of-wedlock births, a new study shows.
Researchers at the University of Washington and Columbia University said Friday that child support laws' power to reduce single parenthood is an unintended consequence of a policy designed to help children and cut public welfare costs.
"Often the unintended effects are bad, so it's refreshing to see that," said lead study author Robert Plotnick, a University of Washington professor of public affairs. "Women living in states that do a better job of enforcing child support are less likely to become an unwed mother."
The percentage of unmarried births in the United States has increased from 10 percent in the 1960s to about a third of all births today. Because children of single parents run a higher risk of poverty, academic failure and other problems, lawmakers are always seeking policies that will discourage unwed births - usually focusing on the mothers.
Researchers said their study recognizes the father's responsibility.
"Decisions about sexual intercourse and marriage involve two people," said study co-author Irwin Garfinkel, a Columbia University professor and one of the nation's top experts on child support.
The study, which has not yet been published, looked at a nationwide sample of 5,195 women of childbearing age using data from 1980-1993.
It didn't show whether tougher child support laws prevented pregnancies or encouraged marriage. Plotnick said the data limited the researchers to observing a strong correlation between tough child support enforcement and fewer out-of-wedlock births. Whether that's caused by fewer unmarried people getting pregnant or more couples marrying when the woman is expecting, he could not say. But he said the findings warrant further study.
"It's been very hard to find conventional programs that reduce unwed childbearing that work," Plotnick said Friday. "If you found a program cutting nonmarried births by 20 percent, you'd be happy."
Researchers noted wide disparities in child support policies. For example, in 2002 - the most recent year for which data were available - only one state, New Jersey, collected at least 80 percent of owed child support.
According to Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty, 31 states collected 41 percent to 60 percent of child support orders. The District of Columbia collected less than 20 percent of all child support owed.